When I heard Carmen Maria Machado had a forthcoming memoir, In the Dream House, I wondered if she would relate a supernatural experience, something strange and surreal, like in her acclaimed short-story collection Her Body and Other Parties. The book cover of her memoir suggested as much: a woman peers out of the attic of a creepy-looking house. Had Machado been raised by spirits? Hidden in the attic for misbehaving as a child? Was she a former ghost hunter or medium? But I also gathered from Machado’s social media, and the description on Graywolf’s publishing website, that Dream House was about her experience of intimate partner violence in a lesbian relationship. I wondered how the haunted cover art fit, and if there was, in fact, a connection. After reading the memoir, I discovered that this abusive and volatile relationship both took place in, and was signified by, a dilapidated house in a college town—a place Machado calls “the dream house.”
Over cocktails at a bar in Philadelphia in late August, I got the chance to ask Machado about this. While she sipped her soft-pink, candy-garnished tequila-watermelon cocktail with a caramel-corn-topped paper umbrella, Machado shared with me her thoughts about the connection between the supernatural, intimate partner violence, and her writing process for In the Dream House.
Carmen Maria Machado’s collection of short stories, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award. In the Dream House—her second book-length work—relates, in fragmentary form, Machado’s seduction into and escape from an abusive queer relationship. She interweaves her personal narrative with the cultural, legal, and political structures that have traditionally silenced and erased stories like hers. Each chapter title invokes the dream house, and examines it next to other cultural tropes (e.g. “Dream House as Lesbian Pulp Novel;” “Dream House as Bluebeard”). Machado writes “that a common feature of domestic abuse is ‘dislocation.’” In the Dream House, then, is an act of claiming and incantation, a spell that relocates Machado’s voice in the place where she lost it. As she puts it in the book’s opening pages, “[t]he memoir is, at its core, an act of resurrection…I speak into the silence.”
—Marissa Korbel for Guernica
Guernica: I really appreciate that you wrote about the way desire can tie you to your abuser, because I feel like people don’t want to talk with survivors about it. Maybe survivors feel shame around it, or they feel afraid to say, “The sex was amazing,” or, “The attraction was so intense,” because of the cycle of suffering and pleasure.
Carmen Maria Machado: It wasn’t pleasant, and it was complicated. There’s something to be said about how desire gets tangled up in pain. Desire doesn’t go away instantly, but eventually it does. Now, when I see her in my mind’s eye, my whole body kind of shrinks and shuts down, and the desire is not the feeling anymore. I remember, a month after we broke up, I was chatting with this friend of mine, somebody I know from high school who’s queer. We were both a little attracted to one another. We sorta, kinda started hitting on each other and being like, “Hey, next time we’re in town, maybe we should get together.” When it ended I closed my computer and I ran into the living room. My roommates were watching TV, and I was like, “Guys! Guys!” They were like, “What?” And I was like, “I might actually have sex again in my life!” And they were like, “What? Well, duh, of course you’re going to. Like, why is that even a question?” And I was like, “I actually thought that might not ever happen.” I thought everything I was with this woman was going to die and be gone forever.
Guernica: That’s part of the emotional abuse. When someone gets inside of your head, it makes sense that the survivors will wonder: do I exist without them?
Machado: That’s exactly what it was.
Guernica: Was she your first girlfriend?
Machado: She wasn’t my first lesbian sex, but she was my first girlfriend. Being someone’s first girlfriend is sort of her specialty.
Guernica: Ah. So she knows what the role is.
Machado: In retrospect, it’s like a huge red flag. I’ve gained this greater understanding about power, and the way power functions, and the way people who abuse power try to leverage it to their advantage. And that’s one detail where, I look back on it, and I’m like, oh. I had someone telling me, this is how lesbians are, this is how it is, and I had no reason to believe otherwise, so, okay. And the same was true for my now-wife, who dated her [the abusive ex] before.
Guernica: The position of authority is a draw for a person who wants to abuse the power to say what is what. In the chapter “Dream House as Naming the Animals,” you write about Adam, and how he gets the job of naming things. I don’t know if you’ve seen Douglas, the newest Hannah Gadsby show. She has this whole section about Adam and Eve and the naming of things. Her version of it is comedic, and it’s [something] like Eve running after Adam with items, asking “Adam, what name? Tell me what this is, O great one!” There’s so much about the witchcraft of naming, and the power dynamic inherent in what naming is. The first-girlfriend power. I get to tell you what this is, because I’m the authority.
Machado: It took me a long time to figure out how to write it. Once I lit upon the structure—the way it moves laterally, and advances forward, but it also spreads out—it created a space where I got to ask: What do I have to say about Adam and Eve? It seems like there’s something in there. Then I’d write a little section, not having to tie it tightly into an actual narrative. I’m just gonna stick this here, for now. Let’s see. I felt like I could have kept writing it. I feel like I could still be writing it now, because there’s always going to be new things to put in, and new ways to move the story around. It feels kind of unfixed, and there’s no ending. It’s a cluster of ideas presented in a way that I hope is interesting and beautiful.
Guernica: Can you tell me about your writing process?
Machado: I had a notebook filled with metaphors and tropes and chapter titles. I was like, Man, this book could be 500 pages long. It won’t be, but it could be. And then sometimes I would be like, I need to write a thing that happened. Sometimes I’d feel like I ought to write about this thing, or it’s important to write about this other thing from my own childhood. Sometimes the metaphor led the writing, and sometimes it was writing first, and then I had to figure out what kind of tropes fit—so it kind of went in both directions. It wasn’t a neat process; it was very messy and weird.
Guernica: I loved how you wrote, in “Dream House as Barn in Upstate New York,” about your residency at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s property. You were walking in the woods, and stumbled upon all of the debris of her pain, basically. Like a pain-pile. And what it did so beautifully, what it showed, was the pain underneath abuse. It doesn’t excuse anything, but the idea definitely humanizes abusers, which is hard to do.
Machado: One of the hardest things was thinking about my ex as a human being, who also made her own choices. It’s really hard, when somebody has remorselessly and unrepentantly hurt you, to think of them as human. But I had to, because otherwise this book was not going to be very interesting.
Guernica: It would lose a complication you have managed so beautifully here. It’s too easy to make abusers into monsters, and say, They’re not like us. They’re these horrible people. All they do is awful things. It’s a way of pushing shadow away. The truth is, all of us have darkness, and all of us have the capacity to be abusive—even women, an important point your book makes.
Machado: One of the things I struggled with was feeling weird in the middle of #MeToo, to be talking about how women can be violent and scary and abusive, too. [I don’t mean to] discount the structural power [dynamics]—many of the #MeToo stories deal with structural power, but there are different kinds of structural power. All you need to create an environment of abuse is a closed system. And a relationship is a closed system. And to say women aren’t capable [of being abusive]—it’s very Lizzie Borden, where historians are like, “She couldn’t have done it because she’s a woman.” I guess, if you make that assumption, then sure, she couldn’t have done it, but obviously she did it.
It felt weird to write this book now. I kept thinking, “Is this the right thing to do right now?” But honestly, I had to get it out of my system. I’ve got other books I want to write, and I needed to move through this. I wasn’t planning on this being my second book, but…I guess it is now.
Guernica: Your first book, Her Body and Other Parties, is a short-story collection investigating what I’ll call the feminist supernatural. But reading this memoir as your second book, it also made me think about suspense and the supernatural as genres, and how women relate to these narratives, because so often women are the victims in those kinds of stories. Women occupy this liminal space between human—which is defined as a man—and animal. So women are this middle, monstrous thing. And queerness—lesbianism, particularly—occupies the same liminality.
Machado: Doing research for this book was fascinating. I’m not a historian; research is not my strength, and it’s certainly not what I was trained to do. But one of the most interesting things I figured out from all the reading was the way in which queerness unmoors—or how, a lot of things, including queerness, unmoors women from [traditional gender] roles. Because people are like, well, women can’t be violent. So [this violent individual] must not be a woman. But that logic dislodges women from their humanity. It’s like this blank space. And I know it’s different for gay men; their history is different. So the book inadvertently ended up focusing on lesbians. I found I was more interested in the question of women and violence, as opposed to queer violence more broadly.
Guernica: I want to ask about “Dream House as Choose Your Own Adventure,” which plays interestingly with the theme of gaslighting. Your story helped me realize how choose-your-own-adventure books are a form of gaslighting. There’s this false agency in the idea. If you hand a child a book and say, the choices in here are all yours, but they’re only the choices the author laid out to begin with, [then] they only get you to where the author allows you to go.
Machado: And actually, there are pages in there you can only get to if you break the rules and you read straight through as opposed to following…which I sort of stole from Kevin Brockmeier. He has a really weird, cool short story called “The Human Soul as Rube Goldberg Device.” It’s also choose-your-own-adventure, it’s fiction, it’s gorgeous. When I first read it, he was my teacher, and I was talking to him about how I read it and really loved it, and he said, “Did you find the hidden page?” I was like, “What?” And he was like, “There’s a page in there you can’t arrive at through any of the decisions, you have to find it yourself.” And I was like, holy shit. So I did that here. I wrote pages that are hidden unless you look for them. But the book also tells you to go back.
I had this idea of making the book the abuser, which I sort of moved away from. Ultimately, I was like, “that’s really intense and I don’t think I want to do it,” but I left hints of it throughout the book. In some places, I kept this direct address [voice]. I wanted to create the feeling of being stuck in a cycle where you can’t get out. You don’t have any real choices.
Guernica: By using familiar pop-culture tropes like choose-your-own-adventure books, your memoir points at the way our culture grooms us to accept this kind of gaslighting. You tell someone you’ve given them a choice, but their choice isn’t theirs at all. The choice is predefined, and if you don’t follow the rules, the book is going to yell at you. As a reader, it felt almost supernatural. The book flipped on me, and all of a sudden, I’m like, oh my God, the book is mad at me, which sounds crazy. But that’s the experience of gaslighting and emotional abuse. The feeling of, “This can’t be happening. This sounds crazy. If I tell people what she said or what she did to me, they would say, ‘So? I don’t understand, that sounds crazy.’” It all sounds crazy. I wonder about that connection to Her Body and Other Parties, and the supernatural. The way abuse unmoors you from reality, and I wonder if it makes sense to you as a bridge between the two books.
Machado: Yes. In this book, I was thinking much more directly about gaslighting. I literally kicked off the idea by watching Gaslight, which I had never seen before. A lot of people haven’t seen it, and really should watch it, because it’s instructive in a lot of ways. Also, I learned about how they tried to destroy the original Gaslight [the film]. I was like, what?! Wait. Wait. You’re going to gaslight the film Gaslight?
Guernica: Sometimes life is more rich in metaphor than any fiction.
Machado: I mean, that’s the pleasure of research: discovering, oh wow, this fact handed to me by the universe is more convenient than anything I could have made up.